RFID Delivers Location-Based Data at Helsinki Mall

By Claire Swedberg

The mall operator and 15 retailers are using an RFID-based system called Physical Cookie, instead of Bluetooth beacons, to identify shoppers' locations and deliver personalized marketing messages on digital signs.

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While Bluetooth beacon use is expanding at retail locations to push promotional content to customers on their smartphones, a Finnish shopping-mall owner has been trialing a solution using RFID technology to provide the same kind of location-specific content, without involving a shopper’s personal information or phone.

Since mid-2014, several thousand shoppers at the Citycenter shopping mall in Helsinki, Finland, have been using RFID tags known as Citycenter VIP Keys to receive marketing messages related to their shopping behavior, as well as discount offers at stores they often visit. The mall’s owner, Sponda Plc., and Pilot, the innovation unit of Finish marketing agency TBWAHelsinki, developed the system, known as the Physical Cookie, to identify shoppers’ movements around the property, and to analyze that behavior and display appropriate content on digital screens installed throughout the mall as an individual approaches them.

The VIP Key contains a passive EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay.

The system was launched as a four-month pilot in 2014, and when the trial ended in December, Sponda opted to continue operating the system, while it considers its options for expanding the solution’s use to other merchants within the shopping center, or to other malls. The pilot includes 15 retailers within the mall, as well as thousands of customers. TBWA plans to make more VIP Keys, and to distribute them this spring to Citycenter shoppers, since the original batch of 14,000 VIP Keys has already been distributed.

Sponda is a property-investment company specializing in commercial properties throughout Finland’s largest cities. Citycenter is one of its retail locations, with approximately 60 different stores spread throughout about five levels. The center is located in downtown Helsinki, in the Makkaratalo building near the train station—a very busy location. Typically, 200,000 shoppers pass through its doors every week.

“We’re always interested in cool ideas to help our tenants and their customers,” says Henrik Stadigh, Sponda’s director of shopping centers. The company began working with TBWA/Helsinki, which already provided solutions for Sponda regarding marketing design. TBWA looked at beacon solutions but found shortcomings with that technology, according to Theodor Arhio, Pilot’s head of creative services.

“The iBeacon is a good idea on paper,” Arhio says, but can be intrusive. “It sends you messages to your personal space—your phone,” he says, “and we wanted to provide a disruption to that. We’re excluding the phone.” If a merchant uses beacons to transmit data to phones, that content can become a source of spam for customers. However, he adds, Sponda and TBWA decided that they could use RFID to collect data about a consumer’s behavior without knowing that individual’s identity, and could also provide personalized content without requiring the shopper to look at his or her phone.

With the system, TBWA handed out about 14,000 VIP Keys, which are made of pink plastic, measure approximately 4 inches in length and 1 inch in width, and are designed to be attached to an individual’s key chain. They come with a passive EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag built in, though Arhio declines to name the make and model of either the tags or readers being used. The company is not partnering with a specific hardware provider for their solutions, he says.

Users need not provide any personal data, since the solution only tracks the unique ID number transmitted by each VIP Key’s RFID tag. About 2,100 of the 14,000 VIP Keys have been appearing at the mall on a regular basis, implying that individuals have attached them to their key rings for use while shopping at Citycenter.

Retailers can access the hosted Physical Cookie software to identify the interests of VIP Key users as they enter the store, as well as provide analytical information.

Like many malls, Citycenter has digital signs that display advertising information to shoppers. These signs are being used in conjunction with the Physical Cookie system, in order to display data.

TBWA installed about two dozen UHF RFID readers around Citycenter, including at entrances to the mall and to the 15 participating stores. As a shopper walks through Citycenter, the readers capture that person’s tag ID and forward that data to the Physical Cookie software, provided by TBWA on a cloud-based server. The collected information is then stored and analyzed according to the movements of each individual shopper.

For instance, if a consumer frequently stops at a specific store or spends a great deal of time there, the Physical Cookie system determines that he or she may be interested in rewards, coupons, or promotional content about that store or the types of products it sells.

As the shopper passes a digital sign, an RFID reader in the vicinity detects that person’s presence. The system then prompts specific content to be displayed for him or her, based on that behavior.

The data is also intended to help Sponda and mall merchants better understand traffic movement throughout the mall. For instance, Sponda can use the information to identify when traffic is heavier or slower, based on specific times, days, weeks or months. It can thus determine which areas of the mall see heavy traffic, and which do not.

In addition, the solution allows Sponda to ascertain how effective the personalized marketing is. For instance, the software can determine when a shopper changes his or her apparent path after viewing personalized content on the screen—for instance, turning and moving toward the store that sells the products being advertised.

As a shopper passes a digital sign, an RFID reader in the vicinity detects her presence, and the sign then displays marketing messages personalized for that individual.

For customers, Stadigh says, there are several advantages to using the VIP Key. Not only is a shopper offered relevant promotions of interest, such as a 30 percent discount on shoes if that individual frequents shoe stores, but the customer can redeem those discounts by showing his or her VIP Key to the merchant.

For the participating merchants, the system also displays the interests of a shopper entering the store, via a computer or tablet that accesses the cloud-based Physical Cookie software. That information helps the merchant to provide more personalized customer service.

TBWA reports that the Physical Cookie system has thus far boosted the movement of shoppers into Citycenter stores by 14.5 percent. What’s more, it has increased the amount of time that consumers spend at the shopping center by 21.7 percent.

According to Arhio, TBWA is now launching deployments with customers in several markets.